I was riding on a boat down a river through the jungle, with tropical birds in the trees, vines hanging down to the waterside, and monkeys swinging in the branches above.
This was the Tortuguero National Park in the Central American country of Costa Rica, and although I had never been there before, it all looked familiar somehow.
Apparently a misspent youth of absorbing Tarzan movies (on a small black-and-white television, but apparently full-color and 3-D in my imagination), watching adventure-plotted Jonny Quest cartoons, and Sunday nights spent with “Wild Kingdom” and Walt Disney indelibly imprinted the jungle in my mind.
Traveling up narrow, murky rivers with the vivid curtain of green pressing in on each side seemed comforting and familiar, as well as beautiful and exotic. It was a nice confluence of the pictures in my mind from long ago and the reality before my eyes.
You may not have noticed, but the “jungle” has been replaced with the “rain forest,” a more ecologically accurate term but not as much fun. I seem to have a shamelessly pulp fiction imagination.
Although the rain forest was a highlight, the trip Sharon and I took to Costa Rica was one highlight after another. To get to Tortuguero, we traveled by bus from the capital, San Jose, for more than an hour by paved road, then onto an unpaved road past banana plantations and neat little hamlets, to a pier on a canal. There we took a boat another hour and a half or so along winding waterways to the place—I guess eco-resort would be the right word—where we stayed.
The small wooden cabins had no air conditioning, the better to have the windows open to hear the howler monkeys begin—well, howling—at dawn. Apparently, they are the roosters of the jungle.
We also, as part of a package tour, stayed a couple of days on the slopes of the Arenal Volcano. There are thoughts that come to your mind while staying on the side of a volcano. One is, “Hey, there are people living all around here—it must be OK!” Another is, to quote Wikipedia: “In 1968 [the volcano] erupted unexpectedly, destroying the small town of Tabacon.”
We also traveled to the Pacific side of the country, which has sandy beaches and the resorts that naturally follow. And along the way, we learned that Costa Rica is an amazing country. It manages to pack several ecological systems and tremendous natural beauty into a country that is about half the size of Kentucky. Since it’s compact, we had gone from Caribbean to Pacific with a volcano in between, without any really hard travel.
As beautiful as their country is—and, really, you can’t go wrong with a place where you can walk out in the evening and watch a toucan fly overhead into a coconut palm—the real resource of Costa Rica is its people. The national character of the place seemed to default to the friendly and industrious.
In the 1940s, the leaders decided to disband the army and invest in health and education for citizens. About 25 percent of the country is made up of national parks and preserves, and it is national policy to encourage tourism as a way to grow economically while preserving the beauty of the land.
I wasn’t sure about the package tour aspect of the trip at the beginning. I remembered one trip Sharon and I made to Ireland in which we landed in Dublin, picked up a rental car, and looked at each other and said, “OK, where are we going?” We had a car, winding Irish roads, and nine days ahead of us, without a single plan about where to go. That was a great trip.
But this package tour was wonderful, too. Sometimes it’s nice having somebody else making the decisions and doing the driving. We met some interesting people who were on the same tour, and we were traveling with a favorite aunt and uncle of mine, and so it was a fun family time, too.
So: I can do the ridiculously unplanned, or the fully scheduled, and enjoy myself either way. Good to know, I guess.
One more thing about Costa Rica: nobody laughed at me when I tried to speak Spanish. Most everybody under the age of 40 or so is bilingual, so I even had it happen a few times that I would speak to somebody in Spanish, and after patiently listening to me mangle my way through whatever I was saying, they would answer in perfect English.
“Yo quiero mas vino, por favor.”